Government backs University’s robot research

A £4.3 million national facility is set to make the University a world leader in robot design and construction.

Wormbot designed by Dr Jordan Boyle from the School of Mechanical Engineering


The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) National Facility for Innovative Robotic Systems, announced on July 17, is part a government drive to improve Britain’s international competitiveness in robotics.

It will give researchers and commercial partners access to a world-beating suite of technologies including the latest 3D printing technology, a high-precision cutting system that fires a laser beam through a jet of water and “micromanipulators” for assembling tiny robots.

The research of the new facility will build on the University’s existing strengths in robotics for surgical applications, patient rehabilitation, prosthetics, and exploration.

Dr Rob Richardson, Director of the Institute of Engineering Systems and Design at the University’s School of Mechanical Engineering, said: “We looked at the most innovative robots being made around the world and made sure that the facility would have the capability to build them. We then added a suite of equipment that will enable us to build robots using new and innovative techniques. We will be building new robots that can do new things in areas that matter to people’s lives.”

Dr Richardson added: “The key to the capability of this new facility is its ability to integrate hard and soft mechanical structures with electric systems and computing in incredibly compact and complex ways. The human body is built from rigid bones, soft tissue, muscles,  sensory organs and communications pathways, all squeezed into the smallest possible space.  We hope to be able to use this inspiration to build robots with ever more integrated parts and increased capabilities.” 

The University’s robotics research already spans a wide range of applications from minimally invasive surgery to the exploration of ancient pyramids. One device with feet modelled on tree frogs is being designed to crawl inside patients’ bodies during abdominal surgery. Another robot will travel inside the colon to screen for cancer, while a new project is looking at ways to develop more “intelligent” prosthetics that anticipate and work with users’ body movements to improve function.

The EPSRC is spending £2.6 million on equipment for the new facility, part of an £85-million nationwide investment in capital equipment to support existing research into robotics and autonomous systems, advanced materials and energy storage. The University will invest a further £1.2 million in equipment and lab improvements and industry will contribute £0.5 million, resulting in a total investment of £4.3 million.

Professor Ian Robertson, Head of the University’s School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, said: “This investment is wonderful news not only for the University’s research teams but for Britain’s ability to compete internationally in robotics research. The facility will bring together a suite of cutting-edge technologies in one place that will be the envy of institutions across the world.”

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